Anticipating Winter with Chickens

As summer’s heat transitions to fall’s balmy days and cool nights it’s time to think a few months ahead. January is on the way, and for much of the northern hemisphere that means blustery cold wind, ice, snow, and long dark nights.

Winter is a challenging time for both people and chickens. Humans prepare by bringing coats, long johns, mittens and hats out of storage, checking the furnace, and closing the home’s holes and gaps with weather-stripping and caulking. These tasks are important to do! And, remember the chickens, too.

Chickens evolved in the sultry jungles of Southeast Asia. It is amazing that these tropical animals survive icy winter cold and continue laying eggs as snow drifts pile up outside. Many common chicken breeds sport layers of fluffy down under their outer feathers. They keep hens toasty warm, and with proper care, chickens are likely more comfortable during winter than when the temperature and humidity zoom upward in July.

Anyone keeping chickens in an icy area should prioritize sticking with hearty breeds well suited to surviving cold. In general, large brown egg laying, fluffy feathered breeds, like Orpingtons, Brahmas, New Englanders (Rhode Island and New Hampshire Reds and Plymouth Rocks), Wyandottes and several others thrive in cold. Smaller white egg layers often have a large comb and sparse feathers and are less suited to life where winter’s chill takes the breath away. 

In summer a chicken’s comb acts like a radiator, giving off body heat and helping keep the hen cool. That’s helpful in July but is a January liability. Combs frostbite. The most winter hearty breeds have a small pea or rose comb that’s less likely to freeze than tall single combs.

Even the most winter hearty breeds need protection from winter’s chill.  Pleasant fall days are the perfect time to prepare the coop and chickens for the coming chill.  Here are several fall projects to keep the flock health through winter.

Electricity

Few items are as handy during winter as electricity. Electrically heated founts keep water liquid and eliminate the tedious chore of replacing frozen water buckets with fresh water.  Electricity also enables plugging a light into a timer so the birds have the 15 hours of daily light that stimulate laying. Set the timer so lights come on a few hours before the sun peeks over the horizon. Finally, having switch operated lights in the coop makes checking birds after dark easier than using a flashlight.

It may be convenient to stretch an extension cord from the house to the coop, but it’s not a good idea. Extension cords aren’t made for continual use and most aren’t built to withstand severe weather. Hiring an electrical company to run power to the coop may be the best investment a chicken owner ever makes, and it might not be too expensive.  

Cords will be safe, and fall is a great time to get this task done.

Killing Drafts

On sultry evenings chickens love sleeping as cool breezes flow over them. Windows on opposite sides of the coop help create cross ventilation. In winter summer’s breeze transforms into a draft wafting through the coop, threatening to frostbite vulnerable combs. To reduce drafts and let more light through soiled windows clean the  glass and close windows as the temperature drops.   

Nearly all coops have plenty of cracks between boards, at the edges of windows and doors, and where the roof joins the walls. An inexpensive caulking gun filled with a tube of silicone caulk quickly plugs cracks and holes. Caulking doesn’t usually work on wide cracks but expanding foam does. Caulking supplies are available in every hardware and home store. The chemicals work best when the temperature is above freezing.

Keeping Water Liquid

Chickens can’t drink ice. The biggest challenge flock owners have on arctic days is keeping water liquid. If the coop has electricity investing in a heated waterer solves the problem, but many coops lack power. The time-tested way to let the chickens enjoy a drink is to bring a fresh bucket of warm water to the coop and remove the frozen one every few hours. It works, but it is a labor-intensive chore. These days most people are at work or school and can’t make frequent water switches.

Insulation works. Chicken body heat will keep a well-insulated coop a few degrees warmer than outside temperatures, helping keep chickens comfortable and slowing the water freezing process.  Insulating the coop also keeps it cooler in summer. Fall is a great season to insulate a coop’s walls and ceiling.

Insulation also works with water containers. Some insulated waterers are made for chickens, but a re-purposed bait bucket may be less expensive and works just as well.   These are plastic buckets lined with Styrofoam and sold to anglers who want to keep their minnow water from freezing while they ice fish. Cut a small hole in the lid so the chickens can access water, fill the bucket with lukewarm water, and it will resist freezing for several hours longer than an un-insulated bucket. Insulated bait buckets can be purchased at stores that sell fishing gear.

Mice

Mice are one of nature’s craftiest animals. They sense that winter’s coming and seek comfortable warm places to overwinter. Spilled feed becomes nutritious mouse meals. Caulking holes and cracks helps exclude rodents, and fall is the perfect time to set up a trapline in and near the coop. 

Commonly available snap traps have been successfully catching mice for over a century and work perfectly in the technology age. Be sure to set them in places where children and chickens can’t access them. Mice tend to run next to walls, rather than cutting across open rooms. The most effective way to set snap traps is to place two or more together next to a wall with the trigger side close to the wall.  A dab of peanut butter on the trigger is irresistible to a hungry rodent. Often there are plenty of mice in a coop, so keep trapping until no more furry feed thieves are caught.

Avoid mouse poison. Mice sometimes eat a poison meal and die in inaccessible places where their decaying bodies stink. There’s also the scary possibility that chickens or children can access poison.  A final reason to avoid poison is the threat it poses to one of the greatest friends of chickens. As long as hens are securely locked in a tight coop each night owls will patrol outside.  Few animals are as efficient at catching mice and rats as these beautiful predators.  Sometimes a mouse will eat poison, stagger outside and be caught by an owl. The poison transfers and the helpful mouser either sickens or dies.  

Feed

When the temperature dips, chickens stay warm by fluffing their feathers to most efficiently trap body heat and eating more. It takes energy to produce that heat, so always keep quality feed available to help keep the girls warm.

Heating the Coop

Chickens are tough birds. As long as they are draft protected and have plenty of food and water they’ll thrive even if the mercury drops to zero. Most parts of the United States rarely experience super cold, so heating the coop isn’t needed. But if the mercury falls to 20 or 30 below zero adding warmth could save chickens. Heating the coop to a balmy temperature isn’t needed but taking the edge off a super cold night will be appreciated by the hens. The same heat lamp used to brood chicks last spring will often raise a coop’s interior temperature from 10 or 20 below to a balmy zero.  

Be fire safe.  Most coops are flammable, so make sure any heat source is positioned away from combustibles.

Fall is a good season to be outdoors but it’s winter’s harbinger. It is the perfect time to winterize the coop so hens will be comfortable and keep laying even as blizzards rage outside.

Ventilation in Chicken Coops: Water Is Essential, But Can It Be Harmful?

Ventilation in Chicken CoopsProviding clean, free choice water 24/7 is the most essential aspect of management when keeping your poultry healthy.

As those of us in cold climates know very well, it is a challenge to keep water liquid during harsh winter temperatures.

Poultry will actually need more water in the winter because of the dry air.

There are many options for you to choose including:

  • Hauling warm water multiple times a day and breaking ice
  • Heated buckets and waterers
  • Heated bases
  • Keeping the coop above freezing

All these solutions have their benefits and drawbacks. Keep in mind that anything involving electricity provides a potential cause for shock and fire. Be safe!

Can water be potentially harmful?

Yes. Water, in vapor form from breath, evaporation from wet litter and water sources can cause unsafe conditions inside your coop.

It seems counterproductive to have a well-ventilated coop when you are trying to keep it warm, but this is one reason airflow is important.

High humidity in the coop can cause condensation and a wet environment causing these potential problems:

  • Wet feathers that lose their ability to insulate; especially in fancy breeds (Silkies, Frizzles, etc)
  • Icing on perches, windows, electrical outlets
  • Frostbite on wet combs and wattles
  • A breeding ground for bacteria and microorganisms that can cause disease

How can you tell if you have this problem?

Check windows for ice accumulation on the inside, this is a sign that the humidity in your coop is high.

Also, check your birds’ feathers for ice accumulation and to see if they feel wet. Birds who are wet will be cold and more susceptible to sickness.

Brave the cold. Keep water where it belongs, fresh liquid in your birds’ waterers!

Read more about the importance of airflow and ventilation in chicken coops

Chickens in Winter. Water: Keep it Flowing!

Like all living things, chickens need water to thrive. But keeping your hens hydrated in winter can be a challenge when temperatures plummet.

Consider these tips to keep the fluids flowing, even in the coldest climates.

Above all, make sure your girls always have access to water that is fresh, clean and unfrozen.

Why Water Matters 

Granted, chickens don’t drink as much water in winter. But abundant liquid water is essential for a variety of reasons.

First is egg production. Lack of water – even for just a matter of hours – can throw off egg laying, which may already be comprised due to molt and waning sunlight.

This thinking applies to meat birds, too. Without water, they won’t have as much of an appetite and won’t grow as big.

Lack of water can also cause problems with digestion and a chicken’s ability to metabolize food. Chickens need water to help soften and dissolve their feed, and keep it moving smoothly through their crop.

Fresh Not frozen

Access to fresh, liquid water 24/7 is especially important because chickens don’t drink large amounts all at once.

They take in small amounts frequently. That’s impossible to do if the water bowl keeps freezing.

You have two choices to prevent the problem: Haul heavy buckets from a distant source and replace the water each time it freezes, or use an electrically heated chicken or pet waterer.

The latter are thermostatically controlled to keep ice from forming. (NOTE: Curious chickens have been known to unplug heated waterers.) In really cold locales, some chicken owners rotate two waterers. One stays in the coop half the day and is rotated out with a fresh one from indoors for the second half of the day. The waterer that gets removed then sits indoors to thaw, if needed.

Also keep in mind that even if your coop is heated or has a heat-producing bulb, the warmth may not be evenly distributed. If you have extremely chilly winters, always check the water bowl to make sure it’s liquid or not covered in an icy layer. While some chickens will “eat” snow, it’s unlikely they’ll ingest enough for adequate hydration.

Pecking Order and Water

New chicken owners may not realize that basic flock psychology can hinder water access. In fact, in any flock of chickens, there is a pecking order, Alpha on the top, Omega on the bottom, and everyone else in between the two extremes. This is seen initially with baby chicks. If there is a weak chick, the rest of the flock will eliminate it from the gene pool. “Vote her off the island,” so to speak.

The flock may do this as adults, too, if they sense the need to eliminate another adult from the gene pool (even a healthy, egg-producing hen). One way they do this is to keep the hen in question from drinking. Thankfully, wintering birds will expire less quickly from dehydration than in summer. You can help reduce the chances of this by adding a few extra watering stations that allow more options for drinking. This simple step can be key to keeping the entire flock healthy.

Along these lines, make sure your coop is big enough to accommodate your flock. A variety of issues may cause pecking or other aggressive behaviors. One common cause is possible changes in weather (winter’s cold) that would force the birds to spend more time indoors, where crowding may trigger aggression – and limit some birds’ access to water.

Keep the Coop Dry

While keeping water bowls filled with non-frozen water is critical, so is keeping that water in the bowl. Wet living conditions for chickens can foster cold and disease. Unfortunately, the downside to some electric water dishes, is that the birds can easily tip them over. A simple, level cradle made from scrap wood can solve the problem.

Your specific winter conditions (from mild to downright miserable!) will dictate what’s needed to keep your hens hydrated. As ways, stay diligent about flock care and you’ll keep them happy and healthy until warmer weather arrives.